How 10 Years as a Rugby Referee Prepped This CEO for the Global Business Arena

His rough-and-tumble lessons proved priceless

It's 2003, in West London. My right hand hurts a lot from an unplanned celebratory contact with the ceiling. Five seconds earlier, Jonny Wilkinson drop-kicked England to a World Cup victory in Australia, and the house is going mad. My 10-year-old son Alexander and I look at the fist-sized hole in the plaster above the TV, and he decides he wants to play rugby, obviously. 

At Rosslyn Park, I offer to coach, then referee, and an RFU scout eventually taps me on the shoulder. Thus began a decade of joy, refereeing everything from hopeless wannabes in the mud to sublime women's Premier League games. Looking back now as a CEO, it taught me a lot.

As a referee, you must know your stuff. There may be only 21 laws governing the game, but many hundreds of variations and sanctions for sundry situations must spring immediately and reliably to mind. Similarly, in the office, you must be on top of the issues, the data. As a ref, you integrate advice from assistants, separating signal from noise. Part analytics, part gut feel, you make decisions, often fast, to remain credible. On the pitch or in a full room, people want to believe in you and will follow you if you credibly lead. They are looking to you.

Ideally, the ref stays out of the way and does the minimum possible. Wayne Barnes famously refereed one entire game without having to award a single penalty—such was his authority. But we mere mortals award often contentious decisions and then need to "sell" them. This means communicating clearly, near and far. Referees use whistle, voice and signals to address teams, the breakdown, and the stands. Likewise, in business, you need different tools to communicate effectively with staff, partners, competitors, and the market. More than this, you need to appear composed and confident. People are looking at you.

A personal brand is important. Business, like a high-stakes game, breaks down when the teams lose faith in you, your fitness, your ability to control events, impartiality, or expertise. The response to "But ref, ref..." is usually "We'll discuss it in the bar afterwards." But there can be a lot of testosterone on the pitch, as there can be in the boardroom. It helps to know when to bite your tongue and be zen.

During Covid, a competitor failed, and we bid for the company in the liquidator's auction. Faces around me drooped as we fell short, and it was scooped up by a third party. But as refs, we're trained to think of a game in four quarters and to reset mentally after each one. We regrouped. We knew the failed business had a U.S. sister company, also in difficulty. This detail beneath the headline encouraged me to build a credible relationship with the owner of the U.S. business. With care never to promise what we could not deliver, we patiently built a deal to acquire it, and we ended the game ahead.

And mistakes? Barnesy reckoned he made a mistake per game, and while it may not help to admit it at the time, you always track back and review your performance afterwards. Did your behavior match what you visualized before kick-off? Likewise, in the boardroom, what was the plan; how did we do; where were we stronger; why did we fail—and how can we do better next time? As my wife might have said: "You can start by repairing that bloody hole in the ceiling."

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Andrew Nugée
Andrew Nugée is founder and CEO of Imagineear, specializing in media and technology for visitor experiences.

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